Johannesburg — A prominent black churchman here says he would defy any attempt by the South African government to "ban" him. Bishop Desmond Tutu, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), says, "I'm not taunting [the government] to take any action. But one has to arrive at a day . . . you decide whether to obey man or God."
"Banning" is a procedure used by the South African government to silence many of its critics. It allows the minister of justice to prohibit individuals from associating with more than one person at a time, from being quoted in newspapers , or from traveling outside prescribed areas.
Under South African law, no trial is necessary to impose banning orders -- and persons affected have no opportunity to defend themselves.
Bishop Tutu told the Monitor that South African Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha's highly publicized "total strategy" to chart the future of South Africa "is really apartheid," the same system of racial segregation that the ruling National Party has followed since coming to power in 1948.
Mr. Botha, the bishop explains, forcefully stated his intention to give apartheid a better facade by making some minor changes in race laws here. But, given an unexpected backlash from his party's right wing, "He's stepped back, I think, quite ignominiously. . . ."
Now, says Bishop Tutu, the Prime Minister must reassert his leadership and is likely to "hit hard at every dissenting voice to prove he's a strong man."
Bishop Tutu's own passport was withdrawn by the government earlier this year, ending his frequent overseas speaking tours. During those tours, the bishop frequently questioned foreign investment in South Africa -- and may have run afoul of South Africa's myriad security laws in the process.
The withdrawal of his passport, he says, "was short of a straw in the wind to see what the reaction would be," -- perhaps in advance of some stronger action against him.
But international reaction has been "stronger than they perhaps thought it would be," he adds, noting that churches, organizations, and individuals from many countries have voiced their disapproval. The bishop says he receives about three letters daily from overseas supporters, and even got a phone call from a young New York couple who shared a prayer with him.
"It's almost made losing a passport worthwile," says the slight, bespectacled churchman, "to see that we belong to this world community called the church."